WASHINGTON — Local officials and stakeholders expressed gratitude and relief Friday after the bill codifying the water sharing plan for the Crooked River zipped through both chambers of Congress on Thursday on the last day the House was in session.
After almost four years and two sessions of Congress, it had appeared that the bill, which authorizes the release of unallocated water behind the Bowman Dam for various purposes, would fall short of passage yet again. Then suddenly, it had passed the House and Senate by unanimous consent and was headed for President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed into law.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Mayor Betty Rope of Prineville, which will benefit from the release of 5,100 acre-feet of water specified in the bill so the city can use it to offset water it needs to pump out of the river to add 500 homes to the city’s water system, as well as economic development. “It’s going to be a real boon for the city of Prineville.”
Rope praised Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, for working across the aisle to craft a compromise with bipartisan appeal that could appease party leaders in both chambers.
“It wouldn’t have happened without that,” she said.
Together, Prineville, Crook County and local irrigation districts spent almost $1 million just to get the legislation passed, Rope said.
“That’s a lot of money. We could have bought water rights by drying up a ranch or a farm. We didn’t want to do that,” she said. Instead, all of the concerned parties gave in a little and received a lot in return, she said.
“It’s great for our community,” added Crook County Commissioner Seth Crawford. “It is going to be great for farmers, economic development.”
Kimberly Priestley, a senior policy analyst for WaterWatch, a Portland-based environmental group that supports the bill, called the bill “a significant step forward” toward the goal of providing enough water to support healthy fish between Prineville Reservoir and Lake Billy Chinook. The compromise stays true to Merkley’s initial vision for the legislation, which included authorizing the release of unallocated water for the benefit of fish downstream, she said. The inclusion of Merkley’s framework was essential for conservation groups to embrace the deal, she said.
“This water is going to be incredibly helpful to the fishery from Bowman Dam down to Opal Springs,” she said.
David Moryc, a senior director of river protection for American Rivers, said the bill, which authorizes the Bureau of Reclamation to release enough water to keep the river flowing at around 80 cubic feet per second, is a vast improvement over the way the river’s water flow is managed.
On a smaller scale, officials can monitor the river’s status and release small amounts of water to keep the flow in the desired range. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is also empowered to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a long-term management plan for dry years, he said.
“Coupled together, that’s an enormous improvement from what the status quo has been,” he said.
Yancy Lind, conservation chairman for the Central Oregon Flyfishers, said the bill is a positive for anglers, whether they prefer flat water fishing in the reservoir or fly fishing in the river.
“To the extent that water is available, it must be released for fish in a way that’s beneficial to them,” he said. “It’s a step forward.”
The water will improve the 8-mile section of the Crooked River immediately below the reservoir designated as wild and scenic, he said. This portion is already very popular with trout fishermen, he said.
Additionally, it has the potential to improve the flows above Lake Billy Chinook, which would benefit steelhead and salmon trying to make their way farther upstream, he said.
“It will dramatically increase the likelihood of (those fish being) reintroduced to Upper (Deschutes) Basin,” he said. “If there’s enough water to do all this, it’s just a huge win.”
If the fisheries improve, it could benefit the local economy as out-of-town anglers flock to the area and spend money, he said.
“The Crooked River is known as a destination fishery for people all over the state,” he said, and this bill will only bolster that reputation.
— Reporter Dylan Darling of The Bulletin contributed to this report.